“People generally suppose that they don’t understand one another very well, and that is true; they don’t. But some things they communicate easily and fully. Anger and contempt and hatred leap from one heart to another like fire in dry grass. The revelations of love are never complete or clear, not in this world. Love is slow and accumulating, and no matter how large or high it grows, it falls short. Love comprehends the world, though we don’t comprehend it. But hate comes off in slices, clear and whole — self-explanitory, you might say. You can hate people completely and kill them in an instant.”
~Wendell Berry, in Jayber Crow
I love the book Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. When I first read it several years ago I wrote this paragraph in my journal in awe. At first the sentence, “Love is slow and accumulating and no matter how large or high it grows, it falls short” gave me pause. What did he mean, that love “falls short?” Isn’t it supposed to be the strongest force in the universe? But as I thought about it more I realized how true this is of our love for each other. It is so hard to show love and receive it. For every loving, selfless action or word that builds love and trust, we stumble and show our fear, bitterness, jealousy, and even anger, even to those we love the most. As Doctor Phil always used to say, “It takes ten ‘atta boys’ to make up for one ‘you jerk.'”
Love is slow and accumulating, it takes a lifetime to build trust, to feel safe, known, seen, and loved for who we are, and to know, see, and love others. But anger, contempt, fear, judgement, scorn, and hatred leap from one heart to another like fire in dry grass. You can hate people completely and kill them in an instant.
This is why expressions like “love the sinner, but hate the sin” come across as hate, even from well-meaning people. Love is slow and accumulating, and cannot be communicated in the same sentence as the word hate. But the hate leaps from one heart to another like fire in dry grass, leaps from the phrase, “love the sinner, but hate the sin” to the heart of the one being called a sinner. And the hate, coming in the same package as promised love, becomes even more powerful.
I had a boyfriend in college who said to me, “I love you but I hate that you’re fat.” Did this make me stop overeating? Yes, but it didn’t make me healthy. It made me starve myself instead, eating as few as 500 calories a day for months, ruining my metabolism, forcing my body into starvation mode, and setting myself up for many more years of unhealthy eating. The hatred leapt to my heart like fire, and has taken the better part of two decades to extinguish.
When I posted my “Bake for them two” essay three weeks ago, hundreds of people commented saying I was wrong and homosexuality was wrong, and some of them said it as kindly as they knew how, and others didn’t bother with kindness. But all the comments merged together like sparks into a single fire and I felt the flames against my skin. And I understood more than ever why LGBT people were leaving church and fleeing from these flames, and, worse, why they were catching fire and hating themselves and harming themselves and dying.
I had a friend, Andrew, who came out to me in high school and made his first suicide attempt a few months later. His parents and his church told him that he had to change to be loved and accepted by them and by God. And he tried, but he couldn’t change. And he feared the fires of hell but he feared the sparks of hatred in this life even more. He was found that time, running his car in the closed garage. I went to college and he moved to the West Coast and we lost touch for fifteen years. Then, in 2007, I reconnected with our mutual friend Tammy, Andrew’s best friend. “Andrew will be so excited that we’re back in touch with you!” she said. Five days later Andrew made his fourth or fifth suicide attempt, and this one was successful. For five days he had still been alive. I think I had his email address from Tammy but I hadn’t gotten in touch yet.
Love is slow and accumulating. But you can hate people completely and kill them in an instant.
So many people wrote to me after Bake for them two saying that they had not heard a message of love from a Christian in years. Many others were mad at me for screening the comments and posting more from people who agreed with me than from those who disagreed. Hundreds of people wanted me to post their Biblical arguments against homosexuality, their version of “love the sinner but hate the sin.” But love is slow and accumulating and I want Ten Thousand Places to be a place where love can be heard over the arguments.
My father, Matt Kantrowitz, and some of his friends shared my post on Facebook, where one woman commented that she was not a hater, that she was just calling sin sin. This was my father’s reply:
In 30 years of ministry with those society considers the “worst” sinners: prison ministry, I have learned one thing: We can’t scold people into the kingdom. Our rebuke: “Calling sin sin” comes across as disapproval, judgementalism, scorn, and rejection. We take their sin (and our own ) seriously. But we realize they will find salvation and forgiveness for their sin, healing and transformation to live a new life: they will find all this a lot faster if we incarnate God’s LOVE to them than if we sin against them by lecturing them when God is calling us to love them.
Love is slow and accumulating. The revelations of love are never complete or clear in this world. But we can do our best to communicate them by showing up in the prisons, in our workplace, in our homes, and in our churches, alongside those who are hurt and struggling. We can sit and listen to people’s stories and share our own. As theologian Paul Tillich said, “The first duty of love is to listen.” But we can’t communicate love in the same sentence as hate. Love can’t be heard in the sentence, “I love you, but…”
Christians, let’s dig deeper and begin to do the long, slow work of love.
For those looking for more ways to listen and love, please check out my post Bake for them two follow-up and resources. And if you’d like to read more about my dad’s prison ministry, check out his blog, Visiting Jesus in Prison.